with the previous lines-->

1 Corinthians 7 in the light of the Graeco-Roman Marriage and Divorce Papyri

(C) D. Instone-Brewer 2000

This is an electronic version of a paper for the Tyndale Bulletin 2001.
The extensive footnotes are only available in the published version.

Picture from Tyndale House

Divorce certificate from 71 CE Masada:
"... You are free to become the wife of
any Jewish man you may wish"



The language and social background of 1 Cor.7 is compared with that of the Greek and Latin marriage and divorce papyri. These papyri are found to be particularly useful for illuminating the issue of divorce-by-separation, which Paul appears to be combating in vv.10-15. They also give insights into Paul’s unusual use of a)fi/hmi for ‘divorce’, and the curious absence of teaching about remarriage in this chapter. Paul is found to have a positive approach to marriage, emphasising the commitment it involves, while warning that bringing up a family was difficult at the present time of famine.

Paul’s teaching on divorce and remarriage in 1 Corinthians 7 is so problematic that there is still a debate about whether or not it contains any teaching on remarriage at all. We can assume that a first century reader at Corinth would not find the chapter so difficult to understand because Paul was a successful communicator who understood Greek well and who knew his readership at Corinth. The key to understanding the chapter is therefore a thorough knowledge of the social background, Greek language and the mindset of the Corinthian Christians. This last factor may be impossible to attain, but an understanding of the social context and the language may be sufficient to unravel what Paul is saying.

The background literature which is the nearest equivalent to 1 Corinthians 7 is the legal papyri regarding marriage and divorce. Paul is presenting a Christian response to problems concerning marriage faced by Greek and (to a lesser extent) Jewish converts at Corinth. He does not give a complete outline of Christian teaching in this area, but he deals with questions and problems which have arisen. He is therefore dealing with legal concepts which would be found in marriage contracts and divorce certificates of his readers. The actual statutes and rulings by various legal authorities are also important, but to a lesser degree. This is partly because such documentation was largely unavailable and unknown to the common people, but also because this literature was very sparse, as evidenced by the almost total absence in the papyri which have survived. For Roman law we have to turn to the 4th century digests of Justinian, and for Greek law we have just one very fragmentary papyrus. Jewish law is preserved rather better, but it is still found only in 3rd-6th century edited collections.

Marriage and divorce papyri have never been collected in one place. They are scattered throughout a large number of editions, and a few are found only in isolated articles. Montevecchi made an incomplete list of marriage and divorce papyri in 1936 and 1973 but did not collect the texts. As a basis of this study I collected all the available marriage and divorce documents in Greek, Latin and Aramaic from the 4th C BCE to the 4th C CE and published them as a web site. I have also consulted other documents as far as the 8th C BCE and the 7th C CE in these languages and in Neo-Babylonian, Demotic and Hebrew. Although these earlier and later documents are useful as background, they do not provide such precise parallels to the vocabulary and concepts which are found in 1 Corinthians 7.


Graeco-Roman marriage and divorce papyri

 Most of the papyri which have survived originate in Egypt. A comparison with the few papyri which have survived outside Egypt shows a general homogeneity in legal papyri throughout the Graeco-Roman world. This is especially true for marriage and divorce papyri. There was no specific set of words which were followed by a scribe when writing a marriage contract or divorce deed, though the same features appear in most such papyri. These features are present partly through custom, and partly because they were necessary for reporting the facts.

A marriage contract normally consisted of:

A marriage contract may also include many other matters such as:

A divorce deed normally consisted of:

A divorce deed may also include many other matters such as:

The following three papyri were among those chosen by Hunt for the Loeb series to illustrate typical Graeco-Roman marriage and divorce agreements. Specific details of names have been replaced by W (for wife or bride), H (for husband or groom), WM, WF, and WB (for wife’s mother, father and brother). Details such as lists of property, dates, and locations, have been summarized by words in square brackets.


Marriage contract, 66 CE, Bacchias, Egypt (GM66, ie P.Ryl. II 154):

[Time, Place]. H acknowledges to WF that he has received from him as a dowry on his daughter W who has previously been living with H as his wife, [list of dowry], and as parapherna [list of wife’s personal belongings], and without valuation in usufruct and as a gift from the current year, [a field, described in detail]. Wherefore let the parties to the marriage, W and H, live together blamelessly as they have previously been doing, H conducting all the agricultural work of each year on [the field]. If a difference (diafora~v) arise between them and they separate from each other ([x]wri/zontai a)p ) a)llh&lwn), whether H sends away (a)pope/mpontov) W or she voluntarily leaves him (e9kousi/w[v a)]pallassome/n[h]v [a)]p0 a)utou=), [the field] shall belong to WF or, if he is no longer alive, to W. And H shall moreover return to her the aforesaid dowry and the parapherna in whatever state they may eventually be through wear, in the case of dismissal (a)popomph=v) immediately, and in the case of her voluntary departure (e9kous[i/o]u a)pallagh=v) within 30 days of demand. In whatever year the separation (x]wr[i]smo_[n] from cwrismv, separation masc.acc.s) of the parties to the marriage takes place, the proceeds of the holding for the 12 months of the year of the divorce ([a)]po?plo?k?h=v) shall be divided [more details]. To enforce the terms of the contract WF or, if he is no longer alive, W and those for her shall have the right of execution upon H and all his property as if by legal decision. The signatory is WF, H being illiterate.

Whenever a couple lived together with the intention of being man and wife, this constituted a legal marriage. The reference to previously living together means that they previously had an ‘unwritten marriage’ (gamov a)grafov) which is here replaced by a ‘written marriage’ (gamov e0ngrafov). A written contract was probably entered into when children were born or when there was a significant value of dowry involved. This was a widespread practice and there is no hint anywhere that an unwritten marriage was less valid or less pious. Termination of a marriage was almost as simple. Either partner could leave or be dismissed (depending on who owned the marital home), so long as the dowry and the wife’s personal belongings (parapherna) were returned.

Cicero recounted a case of a Roman citizen who left his pregnant wife in Spain, and set up house with another woman in Rome without having told his intentions to his first wife. His sudden death and the birth of a son to both women posed the question as to which son was illegitimate. He considered that though it was not legally necessary to give notice of a divorce, he should have done so. The law continued in this way at least till Diocletian who ruled in 294 CE that "Even though a bill of repudiation was not delivered or known to the husband, the marriage is dissolved".

This situation is seen in 1Cor.7.10f which assumes that either the husband or wife could end a marriage at any time, and that the wife could legally remarry. There was nothing that the other partner could do to save the marriage except, as Paul advises, remain single and hope for reconciliation. However, as Paul admits in v.15, this was pointless if the other partner did not want a reconciliation and they were not a Christian (so they would not reconcile for the sake of following Christian morals). Fitzmyer has argued that the wife does not separate herself in 1Cor.7.10, but is instead separated against her will. He argues that xwri/zw can only bear the middle (reflexive) mood in the present tense, and that an important variant has the aorist tense in v.10 which means that at least one editor wanted to suggest that the mood is passive. This means that the woman in v.10f is not separating herself from the marriage in a Graeco-Roman fashion but she is being separated in a Jewish divorce. He says that v. 10f refers to Jewish divorce while v. 12f refers to Graeco-Roman divorce. However, it is not possible to maintain this fine distinction between tenses. We find an example in a papyri dated 13 BCE where the aorist tense is used in a reflexive sense. It therefore makes more sense to translate ‘separate’ reflexively throughout 1Cor.7.10-15.

This papyrus illustrates the wide variety of words were used for the concept of separation or divorce. This short contract uses six different words meaning divorce, all with slightly different core meanings (as defined in Liddle, Scott & Jones): xwri/zw (separate, divide), a)pope/mpw (send off or away, dispatch, dismis), a)palla&ssw (set free, deliver from), a)popomph& (sending away), a)pallagh& (deliverance, release, relief from), and a)poplokh& (chemical separation). It is possible that different words were used according to the slightly different nuance attached to them, but it is more likely that this is simply a matter of rhetorical variation. There are a huge number of synonyms for "divorce" used in the papyri, so there were always plenty for a scribe to chose from.

Some commentators have tried to give a reason why 1.Cor.7 contains both the common verbxwri/zw (1Cor.7:10, 11, 15) and the less common verb a)fi/hmi (1Cor.7:11, 12, 13):

1Cor.7.10-14, 15 "To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord, that a wife is not to separate herself (xwrisqh=nai, pass/mid) from her husband, [11] (but should she separate herself (xwrisqh=, pass/mid), let her remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband); and a husband is not to release (a)fie/nai, act) his wife. [12] To the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has an unbelieving wife, and she is content to live with him, let him not release (a)fie/tw, act) her. [13] And a woman that has an unbelieving husband ... let her not release (a)fie/tw, act) her husband.... [15] But if the unbeliever separates themself (xwri/zetai=, pass/mid), let them separate themself (xwrize/sqw~, pass/mid imperat.)...."


Some have suggested that these two verbs demonstrate a distinction in Paul between divorce and separation. Although it is possible that these two verbs have slightly different connotations (xwri/zw has a sense of "separate" while a)fi/hmi has a sense of "release") they are used in 1Cor.7 as synonymous terms, and there is no doubt that xwri/zw means ‘divorce’. There is no distinction in the marriage papyri between divorce and separation, and in Graeco-Roman law, separation with intention to end the marriage was divorce.

This still leaves the possibility that Paul meant to convey some special nuance by his use of a)fi/hmi. This word is not used elsewhere in the NT or LXX for divorce, and it occurs in only one marriage papyrus, and then merely with the meaning of ‘leaving’ not ‘divorce’, though it is used occasionally in Greek literature with the meaning of ‘divorce’. An interesting passage in Josephus uses a similar pair of words to those chosen by Paul:

Jos.Ant.15.7.10 (259) But some time afterward, when Salome happened to quarrel with Costobarus, she sent him a bill of divorce (gramma&tion a)poluome/n) and dissolved her marriage with him, though this was not according to the Jewish laws; for with us it is lawful for a husband to do so; but a wife, if she departs from (diaxwrisqei/sh) her husband, cannot of herself be married to another, unless her former husband put her away (e0fie/ntov).


Josephus is making a distinction between the Graeco-Roman divorce-by-separation, for which he uses diaxvrzv, and the further step in Jewish divorce of releasing the woman to remarry by giving her a divorce certificate, for which he uses e0fi/hmi. These are very similar to the Pauline uses of xwri/zw and a)fi/hmi, though only in emphasis. One could not say that Paul uses xwri/zw when he refers to a Graeco-Roman divorce and a)fi/hmi when he refers to a proper Jewish divorce with a certificate, because in v. 13 a woman is told not to release (a)fie/tw) her husband. However, it may be possible to say that Paul wants to emphasise the concept that marriage is a bond which cannot simply be broken by separation. There is a further clue in the more normal meaning of a)fi/hmi as ‘release from an obligation or bondage’. Paul may be emphasising that marriage is an obligation and a bond which needs to be taken seriously, and it should not be ended at a whim, as it often occurred in Graeco-Roman culture.


Marriage certificate, 92 BC, Tebtunis, Egypt (GM-92 ie P.Tebt.I.104):


[Date, Place]. H acknowledges to W, having with her as guardian WB that he has received from her [money], the dowry for herself, W, agreed upon with him. W shall live with H, obeying him (peiqarxousa au0tou=) as a wife should (w(v prosh=[ko&]n e0stin) her husband, owning their property in common with him. H shall supply to W all necessaries (de/onta p[a&]nta) and clothing ([h9m]atismo_n) and whatever is proper for a wedded wife, (ta}lla o3sa prosh&kei gunaiki\ gameth=i) whether he is at home or abroad, according to their means (kata\ du/namin tw~n). It shall not be lawful for H to bring in any other wife but W, nor to keep a concubine or boy, nor to have children by another woman while W lives (zw/s[h]s), nor to live in another house over which W is not mistress, nor to eject or insult or ill-treat her, nor to alienate any of their property to W’s disadvantage. If he is proved to be doing any of these things or does not supply her with necessaries (de/onta) and clothing (i9atismo\n) and the rest as stated, H shall forfeit forthwith to W the dowry [money]. In the same way it shall not be lawful for W to spend the night or day away from the house of H without H’s consent or to have intercourse with another man or to dishonour the common household or to bring shame upon H in anything that causes a husband shame. If W wishes of her own will to separate (e9kousabou/lh[tai] a)pallassesqai) from H, H shall repay her the bare dowry within ten days from the day it is demanded back. If he does not repay it as stated he shall forthwith forfeit the dowry he has received increased by one half. [Witnesses]

The extra stipulations in this contract about the lifestyle of husband and wife are atypical, and only occur occasionally in other contracts, with much variation. These stipulations were gradually replaced by the more general phrase ""Let the parties live together in a righteous marriage (ga&mou di/kaia)" The normal stipulations concerned only the provision of maintenance. The penalties are, however, typical. If the man failed to provide maintenance he was liable to return the dowry with an extra 50% as a fine, and if the wife committed adultery she forfeited her dowry. Even after these stipulations were widely used, there was still a basic set of rights one could appeal to in court. A woman in 20-50 CE asked the court for her dowry plus one half because her husband mistreated her. Rupprecht pointed out that these penalties were extremely rare and there is no surviving divorce certificate mentioning any such penalties and only a few claims for unpaid compensation. This suggests that it was very difficult to enforce this type of claim.

Paul suggests that there is nothing to be done if a non-Christian partner has deserted a Christian (1Cor.7:15). If the dowry was with-held, a woman could go to court to claim it, but this would be very difficult. Paul does not say anything about the dowry, and one should assume that he is referring to a perfectly normal separation with the return of dowry (if there was any). In this situation the man or woman who has been left has no means of challenging the divorce.

Paul refers to the fact that a husband was responsible for giving material support to his wife in 1Cor.7.33. Instead of the common term 'necessaries' (de/onta), Paul uses the word ‘pleasure’ or ‘well-being’ (a)re/siv). Perhaps he does this so that he can then make the reciprocal statement that the wife is equally responsible for supporting her husband (v.34). The normal term 'necessaries' may have been in his mind when he spoke of a husband being ‘bound’ (de/desai) to a wife (v.27).

The contract might appear, at first glance, to forbid remarriage during the lifetime of the wife, when it says:

And it shall not be lawful for Philiscus to bring in any other wife but Apollonia, nor to keep a concubine or boy, nor to have children by another woman while Apollonia lives. (lines 19f)

kai\ mh_ e0ce/stw Fili/skwi gunai=ka a1llhn e0p[a]g?[a]g?e/?s?q?a?i? a)?l?la_ 0Apollwni/an mhde\ pallakh_n mhde\ p?[aid]iko_n e1xein mhd[e\ tekno]p?oiei=sqai e0c a1llhv gunaiko_v zw&s[h]v 0Ap[o]llwni/av


This reading would be totally contrary to everything we know about Greek and Egyptian marriages. All the marriage, divorce and related legal papyri suggest that remarriage was not only normal but expected. The sentence presumably means "...while Apollonia lives (and continues to be his wife)". There was no need to state the fact that this only applied while she was his wife because this was implied.

This is somewhat similar to the prohibition in the Damascus Document which forbids "taking two wives during their (masc.) lives " (CD 4:21). This has previously been interpreted as prohibition either against remarriage during the lifetime of the husband or, by emending ‘their’ to be feminine, against remarriage during the lifetime of a former wife. Ginzberg pointed out, as far back as 1978 that the reference to "wives" implied that this rule only applied while the first woman was still a ‘wife’. This was therefore a prohibition against polygamy, and not against divorce or remarriage. Since then, many fragments have turned up which confirm that the Qumran community accepted divorce and remarriage, so Ginzberg’s insight is now becoming widely accepted.

A similar problem arises in 1Cor.7.39 which might be interpreted as implying that divorce was impossible, or that remarriage was not allowed after a divorce until the death of the former spouse.

A wife is bound (de/detai) for so long time as her husband lives; but if the husband should fall asleep, she is free (e0leuqe/ra) to be married to whom she wishes


In a very similar sentence in Rom.7.2, it is clearer that this applies only while the woman is married, because she is specifically called a ‘married woman’:

For a married woman (u3pandrov gunh) is bound (de/detai) by law to a living husband; but if the husband should die, she is discharged (kath&rghtai) from the law of the husband.


It has been assumed by many commentators that Paul is teaching in these two verses that remarriage is not allowed till the death of one partner, or that the only way to end a marriage is by death. This conclusion is difficult to substantiate on the basis of these verses alone, especially as remarriage was an implicit right in contemporary culture. This papyrus shows that divorce and remarriage were such well established rights, that they were left as unspoken implications even in a carefully written legal document. Jews, too, assumed that divorce guaranteed the right to remarriage, and they even argued for the right of a widow to remarry on the basis of the rights of a divorcee to remarry. In other words they regarded the right of the divorcee to remarry as far more obvious than the right of a widow to remarry. If Paul had meant to overturn such deeply entrenched views, he would need to state his case less ambiguously. No native Greek reader would have concluded that remarriage was impossible before the death of their former spouse, either from the wording of this papyrus or from the similar wording in these two verses by Paul, unless it was clear from the context.

In the context of 1Cor.7 Paul is emphasising, yet again, that a woman (or a man) should not cause the break up of the marriage bond. A modern writer would say: ‘You may not break up your marriage which is ‘till death do us part’. But neither Paul nor the modern writer would imply by this that a divorce cannot happen. The other partner may break up the marriage by adulterous behaviour or, in the Graeco-Roman context, a partner may simply implement a divorce unilaterally. Paul wishes the Christian to know that they should not cause the marriage bond to be broken, either by walking out on the marriage or by behaving in a way that will cause a divorce. However, as he acknowledged in v.15, a Christian can find themselves in a situation where a divorce is forced upon them. At this point, Paul says that the Christian is ‘no longer bound’ (dedou/lwtai). His use of doulo&w, with its connotations of slavery, is probably linked with his use of e0lueqe/pov in v.27, which is also often used with regard to freeing slaves. This will be considered in greater detail below.


Divorce deed, 13 BCE, Alexandria, Egypt (GD-13, ie BGU.IV 1103):

To the Protarchus, from W with her guardian WB and from H. W and H agree that they have separated from each other(kexwri/s[q]ai a)p) a)llh&lwn), severing their union which they had formed on the basis of an agreement made at [time and place]. W acknowledges that she has received from H by hand from his house the material which he received for dowry and [list of parapherna]. The agreement of marriage shall henceforth be null (a1kuron) and neither W nor other person acting for her shall take proceedings against H for restitution of the dowry, nor shall either party take proceedings against the other about cohabitation or any other matter whatsoever up to the present day, and hereafter it shall be allowable (eceinai) both for W to marry another man and for H to marry another woman without either of them being answerable (a)nupeuqu/noiv). In addition to the agreement being valid, the one who transgresses it shall moreover be liable both to damages and to the prescribed fine. [Date].

This document was lodged at a public office to prove that the financial commitments have been settled and that both parties were legally free to remarry. This document was not necessary for the ending of a marriage nor for a remarriage to take place, but it was a prudent way to avoid future litigation in case one partner (usually the woman) should claim that there was an outstanding debt. This was a public acknowledgement by both parties that the previous marriage contract (if there was one) was ‘discharged’ (eluqh from lu/w ).

Paul uses lu/w twice in 1Cor.7.27 to refer to someone ‘discharged’ or ‘free’ from a contract of marriage or betrothal. The form lu/sin which he uses first is commonly employed to describe discharge from a variety of financial and other contracts.

The legal permission to remarry was a traditional element of the divorce deed. It was not strictly necessary, because divorce by itself gave an individual the legal right to remarry. Nevertheless, this type of statement is often found in Greek divorce documents. The use of this type of phrase was probably influenced by much older usage in Demotic papyri. This type of phrase was also found in every Jewish divorce certificate, which is quoted by Paul in 1Cor.7.39, as discussed in a follow-on paper.


Latin marriage papyri

Only four Latin marriage contracts have survived and no divorce deeds. A Latin divorce deed was called a repudium, and although none have survived in Latin, the word r9epoudion occurs in a few Greek contracts. We may perhaps assume that Greek and Latin divorce deeds were very similar, as well as rare, and the language they were written in was unimportant. The marriage contracts are all fragmentary, but one is fairly complete.

Marriage contract, 175 CE, Philadelphia, Egypt (LM175, ie ChLA.IV.249):

WF gave his daughter W, a virgin, in marriage, according to the Lex Julia which was passed to govern marriage for the sake of producing children. H took her to wife and spoke to her about a dowry and she owes everything which follows in writing as the aforesaid dowry: [list] parapherna, [list] Likewise H also said that he had taken possession of two of her father's fields...


This contract is assumed to be typical, though it is difficult to decide with so few fragments. It is very similar to Greek contracts except for its reference to the Lex Julia. Augustus introduced the Lex Julia in order to encourage marriage, allow for the punishment of adultery and introduce some restrictions for divorce, with the total aim to increase the number of children born to citizens. His effort largely failed to reduce adultery or divorce, which relied on private citizens bringing actions against offenders, but the financial rewards for having children were more popular.

Paul’s advice in 1Cor.7 that Christians should remain single was probably also related to childbirth. Augustus was able to assume that most people who got married and stayed married were likely to have children. Birth control strategies existed, but they did not work very well. Paul’s advice against marriage is not to avoid sexual activity (as later ascetics taught), because he tells those who are ‘burning’ with desire to get married in order to avoid fornication (1Cor.7.9, 37). The reason he gives for avoiding marriage is "the present distress", which was probably the recent famines. This is confirmed by his explanation that he doesn’t wish them to have "worldly troubles" (v.28) and his other references to current problems (vv.29-31), as well as the later reference to weakness and deaths among the congregation (11:30). All this appears to be spoken with a conviction that the end is near, but he is referring to present troubles and not future ones.



The Graeco-Roman marriage and divorce papyri have been found to share vocabulary and assumptions about social structures with 1Cor.7. It is therefore likely that Paul is addressing the concerns of believers from gentile origins, and these papyri will help us to understand the meaning of this chapter. The assumptions which lie behind vv. 10-15 are that a divorce can be initiated and completed simply by a return of the dowry and separation of the couple, and that both partners are then free to remarry. Paul does not deny the reality of these legal rights, but he tells believers to avoid this divorce-by-separation, as far as it lies in their power to prevent it. His emphasis throughout is that marriage is a binding commitment, and should not be treated lightly, as it was in Graeco-Roman law. His unusual use of a)fi/hmi and doulo&w fit in with this emphasis. Paul’s advice against marriage was not based on an ascetic tendency, but on the practical difficulties of feeding a family during the famines.

Paul does not forbid divorce and remarriage. These rights were so entrenched in Graeco-Roman law that even legal documents do not bother to mention them. In a follow-on paper I will examine the same chapter in the light of Jewish Greek and Aramaic marriage and divorce papyri. These papyri throw much more light on Paul’s teaching about divorce and remarriage.


See also: "1 Corinthians 7 in the light of the Jewish Greek and Aramaic Marriage and Divorce Papyri"


Rev Dr David Instone-Brewer, Research Fellow at Tyndale House, Cambridge

Other work on Divorce & Remarriage by David Instone-Brewer

Picture from Tyndale House
Download free Greek & Hebrew Fonts for reading these pages.